Tiger Woods’s Major Quest

When major season on the golf calendar rolls around, golf commentators invariably weigh in on whether or not Tiger Woods will break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional majors.  Woods has set himself to this epic quest and it’s been fascinating to see him pursue it.  When he’s playing well, the talking heads say that the success of his quest seems inevitable.  When he’s off his game, it seems in doubt.

This week Woods will renew his quest to reach 19 majors at Muirfield.  He currently has 14 titles to Jack’s 18 (Woods also has three amateur USGA titles to Nicklaus’s two).

I’ve written a few times in the past (here and here) that I don’t believe that he’ll do it.  He may indeed win a few more, but I don’t think he’ll win the five needed to surpass Jack.

Here’s why I don’t think he’ll ever reach Jack’s record, let alone break it.

A few years ago, Lee Trevino remarked that most multiple majors winners claimed their titles in clusters.  That is, their titles all came within a few years when they were at the peak of their talents.

Considering the 11 golfers who won seven or more championships, Trevino’s comment is interesting.  The bulk of their victories came within a relatively brief amount of time.

Jack won most of his majors within 13 years (1962-1975), winning only three after that—two in 1980 and one in 1986.

Gary Player won seven of his nine titles within 13 years (1961-1974).

Arnold Palmer won all his majors within six years (1958-1964).

Walter Hagen won nine of his ten titles within the space of ten years (1919-1929).

Ben Hogan’s nine championships were won within seven years (1946-1953).

Tom Watson won eight within eight years (1975-1983).

Ten of Bobby Jones’s 11 titles came within ten years (1919-1929).

Six of Gene Sarazen’s seven championships were won within eleven years (1922-1933).

For Sam Snead, six of his seven titles came within eight years (1946-1954).

Harry Vardon won five of seven within seven years (1986-1903).

Here’s why this is significant.  It’s been over five years since Woods last won a major—the U.S. Open in 2008.  And it’s been 16 years since his first—The Masters in 1997.

Of the ten golfers not named Tiger Woods who have won seven or more majors, only three of them have claimed a major more than 16 years after their first—Nicklaus (3), Player (1), and Vardon (1).

This is one reason why I think that even if Woods wins one or two more, it’s unlikely that he’ll win five.

A second factor is age.  Woods is now 37 years old.  Of these ten other golfers, only five won a major after the age of 37.

Snead won most of his majors in his mid to late thirties, winning three after turning 37.

Hogan is a very unusual case, winning his titles late in his career.  He claimed six of his nine titles between the ages of 37 and 40.

The others who won after they were 37 are Nicklaus (3), Player (3), and Vardon (2).

Many more factors could be considered, but taking just these two together, I don’t think that Woods will catch and overtake Nicklaus, and I think that the period in which Woods will have won his major titles is largely over.

5 thoughts on “Tiger Woods’s Major Quest

  1. Craig Benno

    I think age and maturity will factor into this. I’m not 100% sure, but I think Jack was in his later years when he hit his stride. If Tiger has matured and truly dealt with his anger / addictive nature – then I believe he has the making for a better player.

    Time will tell and while stats are important = we must remember it only took one runner to beat the status for the 4 minute mile when they said it couldn’t be done and then runner after runner beat the barrier.

    Whether he can do it or not, we are in for some interesting games.

  2. John Duffy

    Jack had two major wins at 40 and the last epic Masters victory at 46. Physically, I think that Tiger is in better shape; it’s the mental game that’s at issue. Does he want it too much?

    One thing that is unpredictable is how Tiger will respond when (if) he wins another major. Might this have a salutary effect on his mental attitude overall?

    1. timgombis

      All these things (and more) are completely unpredictable, which makes it so fun to watch!

      But I’m not so sure that Tiger’s in better shape. You could argue that Jack’s swing (driven by his legs) put far less stress on his body, whereas Tiger’s former swings put loads of stress on his back and his knee, which is responsible for his injuries and withdrawals. If you just look at the two, obviously Tiger looks like an actual athlete, but I think Tiger’s going to have some injuries down the road that will give him trouble. Goodness, he’s already had at least four surgeries on his left knee, and now his elbow…..

      Also, Tiger is relieved every time he wins a major. He isn’t exultant and freed up. He’s on some epic pursuit and each time he wins, he gets nearer, but he rarely enjoys victory. He’s relieved he didn’t lose.

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